Should We Be Worried About Processed Foods?

Media outlets and other influential sources have encouraged people to form a preconceived notion about processed foods, maintaining that they are dangerous and should be avoided completely. In reality, many people don't understand what "processed food" really means, and that's a big misunderstanding to be aware of.

froot loops cereal processed food

Processed foods include any food items that have been altered from their natural state in some way, either for safety reasons, flavor or convenience. Those foods aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but some of these processed food items contain added salt, sugar and fat. Food processing itself can be as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a prepackaged meal or snack to have just the right amount of nutrients and ingredients. (via Food Insight)

Some common processed food items include:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Packaged foods labeled “natural” or “organic”
  • Foods with health and nutrition claims like “low in fat” or “high in calcium”
  • Foods fortified with nutrients like fiber, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Canned vegetables
  • Savory snacks like chips
  • Certain meat products like bacon
  • Microwavable meals and snacks
  • Soft drinks
  • Milk

>> Click here to read about simple, healthy, organic swaps for the modern family.

You can use processed foods as part of a healthy diet, because frozen bags of fruits and vegetables technically count as processed food. Items that require minimal processing (i.e.,  washed and packaged produce, bagged salads, roasted or ground nuts, and coffee beans) are processed to preserve and enhance nutrients. It can also help to keep foods at their peak (i.e., canned tuna, beans and tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables and baby foods). What makes processed food unhealthy is when it’s loaded with salt, sugar or fat to make the flavor more appealing and to extend its shelf life. Know about what ingredients to avoid and be cautious of, and always "shop the perimeter" of the store.

Keep these tips in mind during your next grocery store run:

  • Follow the “5 ingredients or less” rule. Packaged food items with a long list of ingredients using words that you can’t even pronounce is a good indicator that the item has been highly processed.
  • Avoid foods that should not contain added sugar. Know about sugar’s clever 20-name disguise, and be able to pick it out on the back of packaged food items.
  • Pay attention to sodium content. Salt is a common preservative that is used to increase shelf life. Many highly-processed foods include lots of added salt, so watch out! Click here to see 10 high-sodium foods to look out for.
  • Avoid processed foods that contain additives, artificial flavoring and chemicals, most commonly found in frozen dinners, hot dogs, candies, artificially-colored cheese, chips, cookies and other snack foods.

>> Determined to try out a week without buying processed or packaged foods? Click here to read more!